Oh, What a Lovely War!
(Victory of the Daleks Reviewed)

Victory of the Daleks

Maybe I’m blinded by Dalek lust. Or maybe, after two fairly cerebral Stephen Moffat episodes, the time has come for us to check our brain at the door and have some mindless fun. Those are the only explanations I can find for why I enjoyed the most recent Doctor Who episode to debut in Canada yesterday. Victory of the Daleks appealed to me on a number of levels, and left me feeling very good about things. Of course, in the cold light of day, the episode’s flaws become glaringly apparent.

It’s like the ghost of Russell T. Davies is waving at us. Earlier, I’d said “how can we miss you, Russell, if you don’t leave.” Well, maybe we did miss him, a little. In any event, if we have problems with Victory of the Daleks, there is the promise of Time of the Angels coming next week.

A full spoilery review occurs after the break.

After being called on the phone by Winston Churchill himself, the Doctor and Amy arrive in war-torn London, thankfully after taking enough time for Amy to find herself some proper clothes to wear. And immediately, we see the rather complicated relationship between the Doctor and Churchill in action.

Churchill recognizes the Doctor from the get-go (although, to be fair, the fact that the Doctor is standing right outside the TARDIS is probably a dead giveaway). He’s also flanked by soldiers who seem quite willing to shoot the Doctor if the Doctor doesn’t comply with Churchill’s long-standing request to share some Time Lord knowledge to end the war sooner and in the Brits’ favour — although Churchill relents when the Doctor steadfastly refuses to hand over the TARDIS key. Then they get on as the best of friends while Churchill shows the Doctor and Amy around the bunker.

In a story like this, where a real, historical character plays such a central role, the success or failure depends on the gravitas of the actor who plays him. Given that this is Doctor Who, it doesn’t necessarily matter how accurate the portrayal is, it just has to feel right, and here actor Ian McNeice succeeds in playing a characterization of Churchill that we, the viewers, can identify with. It may not be subtle, but it hits all of the notes with aplomb, and we as the audience are able to suspend our disbelief and get on with the show.

It turns out that it’s been a month since Churchill made his call to the Doctor, asking for help. Things are still dire, but Churchill is more confident. A miracle has unveiled itself; a new, secret weapon, which Churchill proudly shows off to the Doctor (shooting down incoming Messerschmitts), and which the Doctor instantly recognizes. Yup, the title of the story is a dead giveaway here, but it is still a pleasant surprise to see the Doctor’s oldest enemies trundle out, decked in army green livery, with a discreet Union Jack painted beneath their eyestalks.

From here, the story echoes Troughton’s debut story, The Power of the Daleks. There, unsuspecting colonists unearth a bunch of dormant Daleks and decide to put them to work, ignoring the Doctor’s warnings that the Daleks are trouble. The Daleks themselves even ape the classic line from that episode (“I am your sol-dier!” versus “I am your servant!”). Churchill isn’t buying the Doctor’s warnings. In Churchill’s view, they are “Ironsides”, invented by the mysterious Professor Bracewell, and they have the undeniable ability to end the war quickly in Britain’s favour. Even accepting the Doctor’s premise that the Daleks equal hate, Churchill gets to trot out his classic line that he’d align with the Devil if the Devil was fighting Hitler.

There is some fun incongruity here as the Doctor struggles to solve the mystery behind the Daleks’ plans, even as the Daleks move about Churchill’s bunker, carrying papers and serving tea. Churchill shows some of the other projects Professor Bracewell is working on, which are clearly well out of the reach of Earth technology at the time. I’d say kudos to writer Mark Gatiss and director Andrew Gunn for not spelling this out. The fact that Professor Bracewell’s inventions are supernaturally brilliant is carried largely by Matt Smith’s acting as he views the papers. You can see the wheels turning as he asks Professor Bracewell if the ideas came to him in a dream, possibly by some telepathic link with the Daleks.

But the mystery is resolved pretty quickly, as the Doctor utterly fails to contain his anger and decides to confront the Daleks outright, lambasting them that he isn’t buying the story, and trying to force the truth from them, until he inadvertently gives them exactly what they want. “I am the Doctor and you are the Daleks” he shouts. Upon which, the Daleks practically double over with glee over how they’ve fooled the Doctor. They then reveal Professor Bracewell _ as an android, and teleport back to their ship in space while the Doctor starts to suspect that he may have walked into the Daleks’ trap.

And here is where I give Victory of the Daleks the largest amount of bonus points when it comes to my rating. The Doctor gets played here. The Daleks get exactly what they want. Turns out the Daleks’ ship in orbit is in a bit of a sorry shape. There’s a progenitor machine or something that can make magical repairs and create a new brand of Daleks. Just one problem: the Daleks on duty are so corrupted by various stuff that the ship no longer recognizes them as such. The whole plan amounted to the Daleks heading back to World War Two, making as much noise as they could to attract the Doctor’s attention, and then tricking him into testifying that, indeed, they are Daleks.

Basically, they hit him up for a letter of reference. And it works! Clearly, to succeed, the Daleks need to scale their ambitions back a little. It really seems to throw the Doctor for a loop.

Doctor: “What’s your plan?”
Doctor: “Never! I will never submit—”
Doctor: “… A what?”
Doctor: “Oh. Okay.” (scribbles something) “Here.”
Doctor: “Nooo!”

So, the Doctor rushes off to the Daleks’ ship to play Mexican standoff (holding them off with a jammy dodger pretending to be the TARDIS’s self destruct switch — I LOVE that!) while the Daleks complicate things back on Earth by turning on all the lights of London just as the German Luftwaffe attacks. The progenitor machine does its thing, and out comes five examples of the new brand of Daleks to grace our screens, and promptly vaporize the army-fatigued Daleks who actually beg for death (a moment which is surprisingly sad).

The New Paradigm Daleks

Anyway, about the new Daleks: that cheering sound you’re hearing is coming from the BBC’s licensed toy manufacturers, who now have five completely revised and updated models to sell to Britain’s children and sad, sad geek collectors, in five bold colours so we can collect them all (and who says they’ll stop there? I want my chartreuse Dalek!). My household here is split on the merits of the new Daleks. Erin detests them, finding them chunky and the neon colours rather silly. I like them. I find that the update doesn’t deviate strongly from the classic silhouette of the traditional Dalek, and the whole redesign gives the new creatures a sense of heft that wasn’t always there before. Besides, I especially like the blue one.

iPod Nano

Now that Mark Gatiss has set up the parameters for the reintroduction of the Daleks to Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who, the time has come to bring things to a temporary resolution, so we can return to the matter later (though, please, please, please, Mr. Moffat, please, don’t bring them back for the season finale! Please? I’d had enough of that even before The Stolen Earth hit our screens). Professor Bracewell shows his stuff by creating gravity bubbles for Churchill so we can have (all together now) SPITFIRES! IN! SPAAAAACE! The Daleks reveal that Professor Bracewell_ is a bomb, and the Doctor is forced to rush back to Earth to diffuse it while the Daleks prepare to temporal shift out of there (likely to the turn of the millennium where they’ll help Steve Jobs invent the iPod nano). Finally, the Doctor defuses Professor Bracewell with Amy’s help by convincing him that he is, indeed, human. This despite the metal body and the whacking big indicator sitting in the middle of Bracewell’s chest.

The plot summary may be long, but I think that from looking it over, you can see that there isn’t much of a story here. It’s mostly set-up for a new chapter in the Doctor’s long-running battle against the Daleks, and it’s mostly an excuse for Moffat to redesign the show’s most famous monsters. I’ll give Moffat credit for having the gumption to tamper with one of the best loved designs of the series, but anybody looking for a coherent plot is going to be disappointed.

Much as I like the fact that the Daleks succeed with their scaled back plan, and while I appreciate that the Daleks get to show more of their devious side in achieving it, this cannot alter the fact that the Dalek plan is still pretty lame. A Dalek computer that can’t work until the Daleks that work it prove that they are, indeed, Daleks? Surely there are easier ways to get around that than to call in your worst enemy to give you a reference? Yes, Mark Gatiss has some precedent to work on, but more than a few have criticized this as a case of Gatiss writing the plot first and working extra hard to justify it later.

Then there is the curious case of Professor Bracewell. The Daleks make a classic mistake in leaving him behind, still functional, and still with the point of view that he is a human first, and a Dalek construct second. Yes, they needed him to be a causality bomb, but they blatantly overlooked the fact that he was still brilliant enough to put gravity bubbles at Winston Churchill’s disposal. You can justify some of this as a case of Dalek arrogance, but, really, when you start piling things on this thick, you are pushing your luck.

Then there is the moment when, after all everything is done, and the Doctor and Amy come to say goodbye to Professor Bracewell… and leave him precisely where he is. Professor Bracewell actually lays down every good reason for the Doctor and Amy to shut him down and cart him off to some place where he can do no more harm, but no, the Doctor and Amy decide it’s better to give him a chance to escape and find a quiet life up in Scotland somewhere, thus fulfilling this story’s need for a completely happy ending.

Never mind the fact that Churchill has already shown that he will use any technology and follow any lead that will help him win the war sooner and save as many British lives as possible, there’s the little fact that the Doctor has left behind a bomb capable of destroying the Earth on the basis that it won’t go off so long as Bracewell feels human. The moment the guy tries to apply for a loan at a bank, we’re all going to be in big, big trouble.

Banker: I’m sorry, but your application has been rejected.
Bracewell: I feel… so… inhuman! (rips open shirt. Indicator inside goes beep! beep! beepbeepbeep!)
Banker: What are you doing?!
Bracewell: I’m going to explode because I don’t feel human anymore!
Banker: What? Oh shi— Okay, here’s your loan! At our special no-interest rate! Take it! Take it!
(beepbeepbeep! beep! beep! boop. Lights go out)
Bracewell: Thanks!

It’s also worth noting that the defusing scene is the second time in a row that Amy comes up with the great intuitive leap that saves the day, and the similarities between this and The Beast Below don’t end there. In both cases, the Doctor’s solution is one born out of pain. In The Beast Below, the beast has to have its consciousness killed in order to produce the least unacceptable solution; Amy decides that the beast is compassionate and must be given a chance to prove that. Here, the Doctor tries to reaffirm Bracewell’s humanity by talking about the pain of living, and Amy’s solution plays to Bracewell’s love.

I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a theme here, laid on with all the subtlety of bricks and mortar. As themes go, it’s a good one, though it could get old pretty fast.

So Victory of the Daleks is, at best, a flawed victory. It requires one to check one’s brain at the door at a time when we were supposed to be done with Russell T. Davies’ way of doing things. But I still liked it. I liked it a lot. It was fluffy fun with flags, and maybe I’m a hypocrite for being taken in, or maybe we just needed the break before Time of the Angels. Either way, I think I liked this story much better than most critics, and I don’t feel inclined to change my ways.

Further Points on Victory of the Daleks

  • According to sources outside of the episode, the new Daleks are officially called “the new paradigm” Daleks, which, I have to say, makes me like them a lot less. Mind you, maybe that’s the intent. Anybody who uses the word “paradigm” has got to be evil.
  • Similarly, the five new Daleks are identified as “Scientist, Strategist, Drone, Eternal and the Supreme”. I believe the white Dalek is the supreme, but I don’t know which title matches up to which other colours.
  • I should comment on one of the bigger revelations of this episode: the fact that Amy doesn’t remember the Dalek invasion of Earth in 2008, as depicted in The Stolen Earth. That’s significant and that demands follow-through, and it may well have something to do with the cracks in the universe that we’ve been seeing since The Eleventh Hour. Who fan Allyn Gibson notes that one of the few things Russell T. Davies did not explore about the Time War was the nature of different histories being in collision, because that’s not the type of writer that Davies is. Moffat, on the other hand, is far more cerebral, and is very interested in the nature of time travel and how time can be played with. This lead to Gibson speculating that this one element of the Time War may be the thing that Moffat grabs and runs with.

    I have mixed feelings about this. I like it when Moffat explores and plays with the nature of causality in his stories (see Blink and Girl in the Fireplace, not to mention the Doctor’s relationship with River Song). But this potentially links the cracks to the Daleks, which suggests that the new Daleks will be putting in an appearance in the season finale. And I am sick of that sort of closer. Sick, I tell you. Though maybe Moffat will do things differently. We shall see.

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